When it's their child's birthday, of course I wish parents “Happy Birthday!" Then I always add, “And Happy Birth Day, too." Why?
Many parents are not women or mothers, and many families don't begin with birth. But every parent has a story, and every child arrives in a way their parents never forget.
There is the foster parent who met their child in the NICU at 22 days old. Parenthood began for them with another family's loss, they said.
There is the mother blessing/healing ritual held four weeks postpartum, after preeclampsia necessitated a frighteningly premature birth.
There are the grandmothers, almost 78 and 80 years old, who, when asked, can still recall their births of many decades ago, each with searing clarity and emotion.
From long journeys though fertility treatments, recurrent losses or adoptions to quick or unexpected conceptions, as well as pregnancy, delivery and postpartum that looked entirely or not at all as imagined or planned, each mother, parent and family has a beginning: an origin or birth story (it includes the children they did not have, too).
Their stories are about being shaped, stretched, surprised, humbled, scared, proud, sad, delighted, and everything in between.
In short, they are stories of being profoundly changed.
Jessi Cross is an artist and art therapist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our paths aligned in 2014 when we were both new mothers. Jessi had just created a series of paintings called “Processing Birth," about her unplanned Cesarean delivery.
Jessi shared how her highly medical birth had initially left her feeling disconnected from the experience. Revisiting the birth through painting, she was able to reclaim it as her own. “I made meaning of it for myself," she said.
Jessi's training in narrative and art therapy no doubt helped her to understand how looking back on her emotions and experiences from the birth could support her in making sense of and finding meaning in what had happened.
Jessi told me she was also in a mother's group where the majority of their meetings were devoted to sharing birth stories, and said that while painting had allowed her to process her son's delivery, she knew many others for whom journaling had been a helpful tool. The common thread is expression.
In my work as a minister, I facilitate the powerful expression of experience through ritual and ceremony. Both the act of planning and the event itself foster healing, integration and meaning-making...not only for the mother or parents, but for all participants.
While becoming parents and growing our families is generally agreed to be one of the most significant transformations we will ever undergo, our predominant cultural rituals around birth don't reflect that. They aren't intended for that purpose.
Baby showers aren't designed to make meaning.
Even in religious rituals like a bris or baptism are not about personal insight or expression. For the most part, these rituals are all we have to mark the transition to parenthood or the beginning of a new life, a new family constellation. But are they adequate for the task? Emphatically, no.
Do we need more rituals and ceremonies that can help us to understand and express — to name and claim — our own transformative experiences? Heartfully, yes.
I've written in the past about my own mother blessing, or Blessingway, including the rituals, birth affirmations and readings and poems incorporated in the ceremony. I've also officiated mother blessings and served as a Ceremony Guide to other mothers and families.
What I know from my own personal experience, as well as over a decade of professional experience, is that whether you have a baby shower, bris or baptism, create a birthing ritual, paint, journal or find ways to tell your birth or family story, the most important thing is to honor its meaning.
When you have given birth, become a parent or enlarged your family, something profound has happened. Something deeply transformative has occurred. The very least we can do for one another is recognize that each year with a “Happy Birthday"...and a “Happy Birth Day."
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